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Dry Tortugas National Park - Fort Jefferson
Dry Tortugas, Florida

Weather at the Dry Tortugas is lovely. They rarely get rain because there’s no landmass around big enough to make it rain, and the “Dry” in the island’s name is to warn that there is no fresh water to be found there.

Granted, it was sunny and warm even before we left from the Key West airport. Around noon we took off on a Sea Plane—all bumpy and rocky, all very exciting. Neat to see Key West from above with the plague of cruise ships at port, and the water around it all bluer than blue. Then it was over shallowish water that went on for miles (“Look for sharks” said our pilot, Hogan, who had done the trip something like 10, 000 times. The laminated boarding pass told us, “Lets just say he knows the way”. He did). Then there was a last landmass before deeper water (“Look for turtles”— but we didn’t see any on the way there). We saw a wreck on the way with its mast still above the water, looking dead and forlorn in all that space. One we spied on the way home was also only partly submerged and had sprouted a couple of trees. All told, there were about 4 or 5 wrecks visible from the plane.

After about 45 minutes we are told Fort Jefferson is ahead. The pilot circles around the island a bit for pictures (sit on the right on the way there for the best view). The island is bigger and more dramatic than I expect. White and green and red in the big blue sea. We turn and he approaches the water from the ‘traffic’ side that doesn’t allow snorkelers and have a bumpy landing before our pilot just pulls up to the shore so we can hop out. We were given a small cooler with ice and two complimentary drinks back at the airport and we collect them again now for our day on the refreshment- and snack-free island.

First we walked over to the bird sanctuary. No admittance, but we could hear the commotion and see all the terns circling around—above their nests, I guess. Apparently, the strip of land that thousands of birds now call home wasn’t there in around 1895—or, more accurately, there was only a strip there, no real land or plants or anywhere for a bird to do anything but stand. Only relatively recently has it been used by the migrating terns. But you’d never know it— it looks as though it has been populated by the birds forever. Read on an information plaque that the terns, when young, fly around without landing for 3-6 years at a time, cruising along the African Coast (don’t remember which one, though—maybe the whole thing. They’d certainly have enough time).

From the birds, we made our way to the other side of the island, which was protected from the wind. That kind of sun we just don’t get at home. It’s like it affects sound it’s so bright. I mean, it doesn’t really, but it’s so bright it makes you feel as though you’re in a bubble, even if there are other people around, and you’re cupped in brightness and warmth. Hard to articulate.

The cold of the water was rather shocking after our skin getting so heated up by the sun. Was good though, that zap to the brain when your legs first hit the water and make you suck in your breath. Then the slow process of getting in while people-watching…

Snorkeled along the edge of The Fort’s outer wall—the one that holds the moat. Lots of coral and little fishies along the wall as well as minute perfectly-shaped Sergeant Majors maybe three millimeters long, very cute. Other fry there, too, just translucent little swimming eyeballs. We saw lots of feisty damsels, blennies, feathers, fire coral and others, and hundred of purple sea-fans, well, fanning in the current. There were patches of seagrass in the little bay (many signs around: “Do Not Stand On Grass Or Coral!!”—not enough for some people, apparently) that one could float over. They weren’t very deep, so you could have a good look at all the little creatures living there as you cruised by. Conches and sun polyps, as well as many more tiny fish fry darting around together, pretending they couldn’t be seen. Lovely.

We climbed out shivery but satisfied and (well, myself, anyway) very healthy-feeling while we re-hydrated with Red Bull (not supplied by our carrier)—that stuff is the best! Why don’t they sell it at home? I kept my wet long-sleeved snorkel-shirt on for the killer sun, and it dried in no time with the constant sea-breeze.

Gathered up our stuff and walked around the Moat-holding wall that goes around the Fort’s perimeter. Lots of sea-life on the inside (although not as much, it’s probably much warmer), but there’s no swimming/snorkeling allowed in the moat water. Probably for fear that the crumbling bricks of the building would shorten your vacation and crack open your nut. It was easy to see into the sediment-free water on the seaside of the wall and view the abundant coral, fish and sea-grass from there. It’s good to see a little reef so healthy. Did a windy walk to the other side of the Fort and found the entrance and a spiral stone staircase. Once at the top, we had a very good view of the whole island. No walls or railings around the edge, but it wasn’t gusty enough get blown over the edge with a good wind to topple you into the moat to break your neck. Not that I didn’t picture this happening anyway. Signs warned against getting too close to the edge (they needn’t have worried for me) for that’s where the nut-cracking bricks would come from, making it an unreliable edge to stand on for that photo-op. (And this one is of Bubba right before he disappeared from the frame and I heard a scream…)

Some picture-taking away from the ledge and wandering on the grassy top later, and we were ready to wait for our departure. Our plane was already there, bright and yellow and cheerful against the blue it sat in. Gradually we boarded and buckled-up again. The take-off wasn’t far from where we came in, and in relatively calm water, but take-off was definitely a less controlled endeavour than on a run-way. Slight rolling already just from being on the water, then it’s all windy and the propeller is whining and the plane is shaking and splashing and we’re all lurching back and forth and all of a sudden like freaking magic we’re in the air, wings tipping left and right. My mouth is wide open with the craziness of it all. Ferries are for sissies, haha! I know, it’s only a plane taking off, but trust me, it’s not like you’re probably used to if you fly only in large planes. This is akin to an early scene in the movie “Never Cry Wolf” and I feel like the character played by Martin Charles Smith with mouth agape not sure just which mental hospital his pilot broke out from. Come to think of it, our pilot even looked a bit like Brian Dennehy. I did, however, trust our pilot, and the knowledge that if he had to dump the plane, we’d at least be landing in tropical waters and not arctic nowheres. Note: I did check for my lifejacket before our initial take-off—call me paranoid.

Once in the air, things were much more sane and level and the pilot comes to his “look for turtles” announcement again. I’m looking casually out the window, not expecting to see anything (because, really, when do you?), and then there’s this little brown circle in the water and it has flippers. I realize I’m seeing a turtle! I’m so happy about this, and I’m telling my husband, then I see another, and then two! There are turtles! In the water! I don’t know why this makes me so happy, but soon I’m slapping the slightly bored-looking guy sitting in front of me and pointing madly at the water: turtles, turtles! It is a perfect end to a wonderful day and I am completely smitten with Florida and her treasures. And Brian Dennehy aka Hogan got us home safely too.

2004 Itchyfeet Online Travel